BOOK REPORT (9/12 and 10/12)

Rough September. Back to my usual slog in October!

Civil War in the Ozarks, Phillip W. Steele and Steve Cottrell (1993)

Fiction research. Bone dry and rather skimpy but it’s a building block. It looked like a close call for a while, but I ended up knowing more when I finished than when I started. Whew!

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda, Devin McKinney 2012.

I could quibble.

McKinney hews to the crit-illuminati’s standard line on Fonda’s most important director (John Ford as “myth-maker,” g-r-r-r-r-r, there go my teeth, grinding again) and thus gets some important things wrong (such as concluding that Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is the greatest western ever made…I’m a fan of Leone and the movie and calling it the greatest western is one of those instances where one man’s opinion is one man’s opinion but it’s also what we used to call bull hockey).

He overrates by a mile Fonda’s contribution to The Wrong Man–the actor’s single collaboration with Hitchcock,which was utterly dominated, on screen and in the director’s mind, by Vera Miles–and does so in service of his own thesis, rather than the search for Fonda’s heart and mind or his place in the larger story McKinney is trying to tell.

And, for reasons that one can only guess at, he leaves Fonda’s relationship to Jimmy Stewart (lifelong best friend, staunch political opponent, and chief competition for Hollywood’s greatest male movie actor) so far in the background it’s basically invisible.

In a psychological bio-portrait of Henry Fonda, I don’t count these as minor flaws.

But boy, there’s a lot to like. McKinney can make sentences, paragraphs and pages move. He’s got a handle on Fonda’s odd combination of stiffness-without-rigidity, righteousness-without-priggishness, loneliness-without-existentialism and orneriness-without-meanness and on why and how he–and he alone–was able to turn these somewhat prickly attributes into first stardom and then iconography. And he’s especially strong on Fonda’s famous children. I don’t feel like I need to read a biography of either of them now, and they don’t take up a sentence more than they should in a 350-page book about their father.

Most importantly, McKinney is able, despite occasionally straying from the path, to make the case for his basic ideas. I especially like his notion of Fonda being the first real movie star president–the one the country most wanted to see be president in the movies (and perhaps still does), not least because we knew how unlikely it was we would see his movie like (as opposed to his “reality”) get anywhere near such high office.

McKinney makes a good deal of the deeply and genuinely Rooseveltian Fonda’s spiritual defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election–the man most people wanted to be president in the movies yielding, at death’s doorstep, to the man no one could imagine being president and who had not only come to overthrow the New Deal but would succeed, in part, because Fonda himself had rendered us so much assurance in the role.

By 1980, we were used to thinking of a movie star being president, even if we didn’t quite know it yet, and McKinney’s Fonda provides a nuanced outline of just why and how that came to pass.

That’s a lot to put on a movie star, but McKinney makes a convincing case that Fonda’s career and character can bear the weight. Leaving the actor’s famous and oft-repeated account of his childhood witness to an Omaha lynching for the end is a brilliant, novelistic stroke. Linking it to the unprovable but compelling and realistic possibility that Fonda’s father had seen something similar in his own youth on virtually the same ground ends the book on a note of epochal sadness and disorientation which this writer’s swift, economical style does full justice.

Caveats or no, highly recommended.


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